Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court often breaks along political lines on big rulings. With red-light cameras, however, conservative, moderate and liberal justices found legal harmony.
Last week, the court ruled 5-2 that camera programs in Aventura and Orlando were illegal because the cities established them before 2010, when the Florida Legislature passed statewide rules for red-light cameras. Justice Charles Canady, a Republican who, while in Congress helped lead the impeachment drive against President Bill Clinton, wrote the majority opinion. Among those joining him were Fred Lewis, who in 2000 supported a statewide recount in the Bush-Gore presidential race, and Jorge Labarga, the most centrist of the seven justices.
The court ruled correctly that Aventura and Orlando had created a separate punishment for red-light violations, which the Florida Uniform Traffic Control Law already covers. Essentially, the cities created red-light traps, much like the speed traps decades ago. Cities can control "certain traffic movements" within their borders, the court ruled, but programs in Aventura and Orlando were illegal unless "expressly authorized," which they weren't.
The ruling, of course, does not cover current camera programs. Critics in the Legislature, though, likely will take notice. A bill to abolish the programs failed this year.
Local officials in counties and cities that have camera traffic programs — Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Boca Raton, among others — claim that it's all about safety. So do companies that install and help to monitor the cameras. But the evidence that money matters more than safety when it comes to automated traffic enforcement is overwhelming.
Last February, the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Accountability made a presentation to the Florida Senate. The research covered the camera programs that are in five counties and nearly 100 cities. One key finding was that 56 percent of the jurisdictions tried no "countermeasures" before installing cameras. Those "countermeasures" include holding the four-way red light longer, to clear the intersection, or stationing a real police officer at an intersection. Such "countermeasures," however, don't require cameras and don't bring the city or county any money.
About the money. OPPAGA found the state received nearly $53 million from camera fines last year. (The current fiscal year ends June 30.) That's up from $16.7 million in 2010-11, the first year the state was in on the action. Yes, when the Legislature blessed the cameras in 2010, the Legislature cut the state in for the biggest share. Of the $158 fine, $100 goes to the state, while the local government that bears the cost of the program gets just $45. The other $13 goes to two medical trust funds – an attempt to promote the safety-first myth.
As for the locals, their red-light camera revenue also has increased, from about $18 million in 2010-11 to $56.4 million. OPPAGA found, however, that about half of that local revenue must go to the vendors. The lower share of the fine and the higher operating costs have caused some governments to reassess just how much safety is worth. Margate and Hallandale plan to end their programs, citing higher costs.
As for whether the programs have made roads safer, OPPAGA found "widely varying results." Fatal crashes are down by nearly half, but rear-end crashes are up 35 percent, and other types of crashes at intersections also have increased. In addition, just 19 percent of the revenue from camera fines went toward public safety and roadwork. Seventy-six percent went into the operating budget of the city or county. It is no coincidence that red-light cameras caught on in 2007, as property values dropped and local budgets got squeezed.
Four decades ago, the new Florida Constitution abolished municipal courts, some of which enforced the old speed traps, in favor of a statewide, uniform system. Yet red-light camera programs created city-run "courts" that issues tickets not to drivers but to owners of cars — without a certified law enforcement officer having witnessed the supposed violation. The violator was presumed guilty, not innocent. Some cities rigged rules for right turns on red; the Legislature sought to end that last year. If the Legislature doesn't end this scam, the next legal challenge should.
Randy Schultz is the former editorial page editor of The Palm Beach Post. He also blogs for Boca Raton Magazine.